Barry Wood is a devout Presbyterian, but today he'll also be worshipping at the altar of two other gods.
As president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the International Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy "MacEddy" fan club, Mr. Wood, 71, of Houston, Pa., will be hosting a local meeting at his Washington County home with Sharon Rich, international president of the club.
Even for those who have never heard of the singing screen duo -- and they are out there -- this should be a lively meeting.
Ms. Rich, of New York, is the author of "Sweethearts," a lurid expose of the secret love affair between the two -- complete with suicide attempts, illegitimate pregnancies and marriages to others -- that lasted for nearly three decades.
"Seeing them on the screen, it's almost a spiritual experience," said Mr. Wood of MacDonald and Eddy, who made eight film musicals together between 1934 and 1942. "There's something about the quality and timbre of their voices that touches my soul."
As fan clubs go, the MacEddy club probably can't match the size of Justin Bieber's, or Elvis'. As of Friday only 249 people "like" the MacEddy Facebook page. Of course MacDonald and Eddy haven't been around for a while. Both died in the mid-1960s.
And therein lies a problem: a certain generation of studio-protected gods and goddesses created during Hollywood's Golden Age have probably reached their sell-by date -- or at least their fan clubs have.
Whether founded out of loneliness, obsession or as part of a long-ago publicity stunt dreamed up by a studio flack, some fan clubs dedicated to these mid-20th century icons endure, while others don't. Some are in bricks-and-mortar shrines, often in dusty, out-of-the-way hometowns, others are online and have Facebook pages. All of them are trying to remain relevant in a noisy pop culture that produces new stars every day.
Jimmy Stewart's museum in Indiana, Pa., has had its financial woes, although recent contributions by Bridgeville native Ken Schultz have eased pressures somewhat. On Interstate 95 in North Carolina, there are signs pointing to the Ava Gardner museum in Smithfield -- which eagerly solicits donations from "Ava Advocates" on its website. At the Mario Lanza Institute in Philadelphia, the once famous movie star and singer gets a trickle of visitors each day.
Doris Day -- who is still alive (at age 89 or 91, depending on the source) and living in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif. -- has only one fan club left (in Australia), according to the DorisDayTribute.com page, which was clearly founded to keep nosy fans at bay. (One FAQ: "Can you help me meet Doris?" Official, exasperated response: "No. This site is a fan tribute and we don't have a direct hotline to Ms. Day.")
Still, there are some surprises online.
"He Believed in The Ethics of The Lone Ranger in His Personal Life!" says the headline for the fan page of Clayton Moore, aka "The Lone Ranger," which is being released as a movie this summer starring Johnny Depp.
"Moore lived a life true to the Lone Ranger Creed," says the official bio. "His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is the only one to include his character's name. Though many men have played the part of the masked man in the past seven decades, only one will truly be remembered as the Lone Ranger -- Clayton Moore. Rest in peace Kemo Sabe."
Read on, though, and you have to start wondering about ethics: when a producer who owned the rights of The Lone Ranger sued in 1979 to prohibit the 65-year-old Moore from making appearances in the role, Mr. Moore just changed his costume slightly and replaced the mask with wraparound sunglasses -- and countersued. Moore died in 1999.
Then there's Bing Crosby.
He lives on through repeated showings of "White Christmas" and on the Internet. There's bingcrosby.com, his own "official" Web page and other assorted sites.
Crosby, who died in 1977, has his own glossy quarterly magazine called -- what else? -- BING, published by The International Club Crosby, which claims to be the world's longest-running fan club "as recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records."
Judging by the photos in BING, the print magazine's demographic is heavily male, with a strong emphasis on the Greatest Generation -- World War II veterans who loved the bass-baritone crooner for his morale-boosting trips to entertain the troops.
When that generation passes on, it is entirely possibly that BING will sing its swan song -- or at least go digital.
So just who are these celebrities, anyway?
Thomas O'Guinn, a professor of business studies at the University of Wisconsin, wrote a paper published by the Consumer Research Association nearly 20 years ago -- "Touching Greatness: The Central Midwest Barry Manilow Fan Club." He defines a celebrity as "one who is known by many, but knows far fewer, and is the object of considerable attention."
A fan club may be fueled by a desire for community, bonding or a surrogate family ("large phone bills from calling other Barry Manilow club members are common," he said).
Also, especially among teenagers, there may be a strong identification with the celebrity, "since no one is searching for an identity harder than a teenager, who may change one every other day," he said.
Then there's the religiosity aspect -- a wish by the fan to be spiritually transported or healed by a celebrity possessed with supernatural properties that border on the miraculous.
During his interviews with members of Barry Manilow's fan club, "someone would say, 'well, so and so had a really bad case of the flu, and then Barry met them, and they got better.' "
In one fan's bedroom, loaded with photos and posters and bobblehead dolls of Mr. Manilow, "the highest status things in the collection were actually touched by Barry," Mr. O'Guinn added, including a bottle of Perrier he'd drank.
When Mr. O'Guinn visited Grauman's Chinese Theatre (now known as TCL Chinese Theatre) in Los Angeles, people engaged in the same ritual over and over again -- "almost a liturgical act. They would stoop down to be photographed placing their own hands or feet in the impressions left by the stars."
"People don't just look at the footprints, they have to touch them to make it real. It's the proof of existence," he said.
Actually, Mr. O'Guinn said he still has a Bic pen that Tennessee Williams gave him.
"I was a freshman English major at the University of Texas and Williams was coming to the campus to speak. I got there early, and the drinking age was 18 then, so I went into this bar where the only other person there was Tennessee Williams. So I sat next to him and we talked and drank for 45 minutes until his handlers tracked him down and took him away."
For his troubles, Mr. O'Guinn got Williams' autograph -- and the pen, which he keeps in his safety deposit box.
"One hundred years from now, we'll probably still have fan clubs for Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Michael Jackson and the Beatles, but I wouldn't put Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald on that list, or even in the top 100," he said.
Ms. Rich begs to differ, noting that a film script about the star-crossed, adulterous couple is in the works.
"I get emails from people as young as 13 who say 'I just saw "Naughty Marietta" on Turner Movie Classics and I loved it.' " she said. "If there is a way to watch their films, there will be another generation of fans," she said.
Mr. Wood, host of today's event, notes that the frame around his car's license plate says "Nelson Eddy Jeanette MacDonald" and people always honk their horns.
"To me it's a thrill whenever I run into anybody who likes them, too. I have a lot of MacEddy T-shirts and I wear them all summer, and people will stop and say something, people who share the same joy and appreciation that I do."